Like any migrant workers, LGBT+ migrant workers leave their own countries in search of work abroad and often face risks of human rights violations and exploitation during their migration process, whether it is through regular or irregular routes. However, some forms of discrimination or rights violations faced by LGBT+ migrant workers come in different forms from those faced by non-LGBT+ migrant workers who identify themselves as heterosexual and cisgender. The International Labour Organization reports that there are almost 2 million Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand and Malaysia in 2021, while many more work in other ASEAN countries. Among them, people who identify themselves to be LGBT+ are often under-represented, with no statistical data specifically on LGBT+ migrant workers available.
The experiences and challenges faced by the LGBT+ migrant workers during their migration process still remains under- studied and under-reported. This series of three articles presents Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers’ stories to tell their migration experiences to other Southeast Asia countries, based on interviews with Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore; which are the most popular destinations for Myanmar migrant workers in Southeast Asia. This first article discusses safety of migration and accessibility to work abroad. The names appearing in this article are pseudonyms.
Challenges as LGBT+ Migrant Workers
Maria is a transgender woman from Myanmar, and is currently working as a housemaid in Chiangmai after fleeing toThailand due to the political and economic crisis in 2012.
“I had to pay a lot of money to both the agency and smugglers to get into Thailand irregularly, and there was even no guarantee for securing a job when reaching Thailand. On the way to Mae Sot, a border city of Thailand, the male brokers tried to sexually harass me and other transgender people on the bus. (Before going to Mae Sot) It took 12 hours to get to Myawady, a border city of Myanmar, by bus. We had to be smuggled into Mae Sot at night due to strict regulations during the daytime”
Maria explains that she had to bear the terrible smell while she was lying down in a cattle truck to hide during the dangerous journey into Mae Sot. She paid the driver for the transportation, and then paid fees to a Thai female broker to find her a job. The total amount of money she spent before getting a job in Bangkok was equal to six-month earnings, and once she started working, she was paid low salary because she was an undocumented migrant.
She says being a transgender woman in addition to a migrant worker without legal status adds more problems to her migration process. Her employers take advantage of these facts to exploit her with low salaries and inadequate working conditions. Some of her friends tragically became victims of extreme human rights abuse such as rape and human trafficking.
David is a gay migrant worker from Myanmar, and works as a construction worker in Singapore.
“I thought the informal channel to migrate would be less expensive. But in fact, owing to no legal documents and no assistance for the migration process from Myanmar (government), I had to face exploitation not only from agencies and brokers but also from my employers, and I accepted the situation because I had no other choice”.
(photo provided by an interviewee)
Since he arrived at the construction site, he became aware that one site manager was sexually exploiting a transgender woman from Laos who was also an irregular migrant worker. This made him decide not to reveal his gender identity to anyone within the site as he worried about being treated with prejudice or even sexually harrassed. He additionally explains that he always feels insecure in his male-dominant and gender-discriminating workplace, and cannot feel safe to express his opinions to defend LGBT+ migrant workers.
Additional Impact of Covid-19 and the Military Coup
As a consequence of Covid-19 outbreak, many businesses stopped their operations and simultaneously many people have lost their jobs both in Myanmar and the destination countries of migrant workers. The pandemic has become an excuse for many employers to dismiss employees, decrease salaries and exploit the workforce. Women and LGBT+ individuals are particularly vulnerable in such situations.
Thuzar Myint, a Myanmar lesbian migrant worker working in Malaysia, told that the previous Myanmar Government led by the National League of Democracy gave legal recognitions to Myanmar migrant workers resulting in improvement of their human rights situations, increasing salaries, and enjoyment of paid holidays for migrant workers. However, Covid-19 mobility restrictions during the pandemic have made her confined in the workplace while threatened by her employer to work extra hours if she does not want to be fired. Meanwhile, her salary was reduced to half because the employer had to have her vaccinated as explained by the employer, although in fact the vaccination was free of charge.
“Due to the Myanmar government now giving less protection to migrant workers abroad, I have to deal with the same problems again. When I went to the immigration office to renew my work permit, the staff were not kind, making me feel like an outcast, and had to wait all day to get my work permit renewed. The employers are seemingly always looking for ways to exploit the workforce by doubling the workload, setting longer working hours, decreasing salaries, and even using Covid-19 situations as an excuse to manipulate us. The nightmares for LGBT+ migrant workers seem to have come back again”.
Covid-19 pandemic has indeed made marginalised groups more vulnerable, and LGBT+ community is not an exception. In addition to the public health crisis, the military coup that took place in Myanmar in February 2021 continues to rub salt into the wounds for LGBT+ migrant workers, particularly because many became unable to return home after losing their jobs due to the increasing security concerns, including Myanmar military’s human rights violations particularly against marginalised groups.
(Protesters from the LGBTQ community hold rainbow flags as they march in Yangon, Myanmar on Feb. 8, 2021. | AP Photo)
“I was made redundant when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the economy badly. It has been almost one year since I became unemployed, and now I do not dare to go back to Myanmar because of the military government and security concerns. I have been looking for a job here in Bangkok and still have not found any yet. I have been staying at my friends’ apartment for quite a long time and I need a job to support myself and send money to my family in Mandalay. It is quite difficult for a transgender woman like me to get a job in these Covid-19 pandemic situations”, shares Thet Mon, a Myanmar transgender woman in Thailand.
Safe and accessible migration routes?
Any migrant worker, regardless of their gender identity, can encounter these aforementioned migration issues through both regular and irregular migration processes. However, to shed light on experiences of the under-represented group, it is important to address the issues and particular vulnerabilities of LGBT+ migrant workers.
As seen from the stories of the interviewees in this article, Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers face an increase in specific difficulties and challenges to survive in their destination countries while being concerned about the political situations of the home country. The experiences of LGBT+ migrant workers, of course, depends on their workplaces and people they work with as well as human rights situations in respective destination countries.
The interviews also suggested that Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers are also often discriminated against and undermined based on their nationality as “Myanmar”, resulting in lower pay and increased exploitation. Their nationality, sexuality and gender identities bring them multiple marginalisation.
Despite the Myanmar government and international organisations’ attempt to protect migrant workers, it is clear that there is a lack of attention towards Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers with their specific challenges that are often overlooked. This article is written with the hope to advocate the desperate and under-represented needs of Myanmar LGBT+ migrant workers for safe, affordable and accessible migration routes, and the demand for actions from various stakeholders.
This article is part 1 of 3.
Myoh Minn Oo
Myoh Minn Oo is an independent writer and researcher with a passion for social and political work in Myanmar and ASEAN. He is actively involved in social and political movements both locally and internationally for a democratic and just society. He conducts research and publishes articles while remaining actively engaged in local and international organisations in areas of democracy, federalism, human rights and social matters.
Other Publications by Myoh Minn Oo:
“Calling for International Attention to Mon State” (Change Magazine)